The Percentage of Women Working in America Hits Lowest Point in 45 Years

Volunteers speak with a woman while boxes of food for the needy from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida are being packed in her car during a drive through event at City of Destiny church. The demand for food continues in the Orlando, Florida area due to the large numbers of service workers and others who have become unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By Meghan McCarthy, Elle Meyers

October 8, 2020

Another coronavirus side effect? A greater percentage of American women were working in 1976 than 2020.

When it comes to how bad the pandemic has been for women, there is one statistic that sums it up well: The percentage of women working in the United States hasn’t been this low since 1975.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), just over 56% of women in the United States were working in the third quarter of this year. The last time it was that low? Exactly 45 years ago, in the third quarter of 1975.

The number of women in the workforce had slowly risen before the pandemic, hitting a high point around 64% in the year 2000. Women working dropped off a bit after the Great Recession, but had steadily increased up to around 60% in the last three years. 

That all changed when the pandemic hit. Sixty percent of women were working in the first quarter of 2020. By the second quarter, that number was just shy of 53%–the lowest percentage of women working since BLS started recording the data in 1960. It ticked back up to 56% in the next quarter as some businesses reopened, but it is nowhere near where employment was at the start of the year.

Child care was expensive and often inaccessible for many families before the pandemic, and women were more likely than men to take time off or quit their jobs to be family caretakers. The coronavirus pandemic has amplified that trend.

Over the last 15 years, the number of childcare providers has dropped 30%, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. This means that not only is it often very expensive to get a child in childcare, it can be difficult to find as well. On average, families spend about $6,000 out of their own pockets, according to the Center For American Progress. 

According to the Financial Times, the pandemic could be the catalyst that brings about child care reform in the United States. Now, a majority of both Democratic and Republican voters support additional federal funding for child care.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced a plan to improve child care in the United States and included it in his platform. His plan would fund more affordable child care, and offer universal preschool to three- and four-year-olds in the country. According to an outline of the plan, Biden would expand tax credits and provide subsidies on a sliding scale to cover the cost of care. 

“If we truly want to reward work in this country, we have to ease the financial burden of care that families are carrying,” Biden said during a speech announcing the plan. “And we have to elevate the compensation, benefits, and dignity of caregiving workers and early childhood educators.”

Biden’s plan would also increase pay and benefits for early childhood educators who are often underpaid. 

The new proposal is especially important now. Childcare advocates have been calling on Congress to provide emergency funding to existing providers, as revenues have fallen, enrollment is down, and operating costs have skyrocketed.

According to a Senate report, published in September, the childcare industry needs $9 billion to stay afloat. The report also found the lack of affordable child care is actually slowing the country’s economic recovery.

In contrast, President Trump proposed a budget for 2021 with a one time $1 billion investment to improve childcare infrastructure, a whopping $8 billion below the amount industry experts say is needed. Instead of working to allocate more emergency COVID relief funding, the Trump administration has repeatedly called for schools to reopen, without sufficient support like funding and supplies to do so safely. 

“SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” Trump tweeted over the summer. 

Biden has outlined a number of economic plans that, all together, have the potential to drastically reduce poverty rates in the United States. The detailed plans cover everything from increasing green infrastructure jobs to additional support for Section 8 housing vouchers, and new tax credits for low-income households according to research from the Center on Poverty and Social Policy. 
So far, there has not been a similar level of economic planning from the Trump campaign.


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